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Book Review - Artificial Life Possibilities: A Star Trek Perspective

Reviewer Brad Kane recommends this interesting book which "provides a light-hearted exploration of artificial life within the context of the beloved world of Star Trek", chiefly through the fictional constructs of Data and the Emergency Medical Hologram.

Brad Kane, Blogger

March 8, 2006

9 Min Read

Welcome to the 24 th Century

The Star Trek television shows and films are well-known for their expansive vision of humanity's future and their sharp insight into human nature. Star Trek is also notorious as a breeding ground for real-world scientific developments, and many look to the imaginings of the Star Trek universe as an indicator of how science and humanity might intersect in the centuries to come.

Nowhere in Star Trek is that intersection more clear than in the handful of artificially-intelligent characters that roam the decks of Star Fleet ships, and it's no surprise that an author might turn to Star Trek for a deeper understanding of artificial intelligence and artificial life. That's what Penny Baillie-De Byl does in her new book, Artificial Life Possibilities: A Star Trek Perspective– and she pulls it off with twenty-fourth century style.

The book is essentially an examination of how, using today's technologies in computing and robotics, we might be able to create artificial beings such as those seen in the Star Trek future. Read on for a fascinating journey through the bodies, minds, and hearts of some of Star Trek's most beloved artificial characters.

Data and the EMH

Understanding this book requires a basic familiarity with two of Star Trek's most well-known artificial life forms: Lieutenant Commander Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the Emergency Medical Hologram (or EMH for short), from the Star Trek: Voyager series.

Data and the EMH are very different characters in their way. Data is an android, a physical being with a positronic brain, lacking humor and emotion but dedicated to widening his understanding of “the human equation.” The EMH, on the other hand, is a witty character who has many of Data's problems solved, but as a mere holographic projection, faces fundamental questions about the very nature of his existence.

Yet these two characters have an important commonality: they're both artificially created beings, living among humans and attempting to adapt in the real world. As such, they both exhibit a wide range of physiological, psychological, and metaphysical character traits, and taken together, provide solid ground from which the author can launch her probe into the nature of artificial life.

The book is divided into three sections, each exploring one of three aspects of these artificial crew members: Body, Mind, and Soul.

Body: Positronic Matrices and Holographic Emitters

Creating a positronic android, as it turns out, is a remarkably more plausible undertaking than creating a mobile hologram – at least from a hardware perspective.

According to the author, Data requires about 100 Petrabytes of storage space – or a hundred million gigabytes – to function, which Moore's famous law indicates will be manageable by the time of the Star Trek future. Programming a positronic brain would be a significant challenge, but Byl guesses that this might ultimately be possible using the developing technology of neural networks.

Additionally, Data's physical body is a natural extrapolation of today's research into robotics. In this area, the Byl provides interesting information about current trends in robotics, including the ideas of inverse kinematics for robots, and the wide world of sensors, which are an artificial life's interface with the outside world. Given the progress of research into robotic vision, computer speech and sound recognition, haptics, and artificial taste and smell, the author asserts that it should in fact be possible to make a Data-like robot in the not-too-distant future.

The Emergency Medical Hologram, on the other hand, is pure science fiction. It takes only a short discussion on holograms and light projection for the author to demonstrate the fundamental implausibility of creating a mobile 3D hologram – which also makes it unlikely that we'll be visiting real-life holodecks anytime soon. But not to worry –the author herself reminds us that today's impossibilities have a way of becoming tomorrow's realities.

Mind: First-Order Logic and Genetic Algorithms

Assembling the physical components of an artificial life form is, of course, only the beginning of the story. Programming the AI is where the real challenge begins, and the second part of the book is dedicated to exploring concepts in artificial intelligence, with a trust toward creating intelligent minds such as those of Data and the EMH.

Even an advanced AI such as Data requires a core operating system, and thus this section begins with an overview of a basic computer OS. Based on references from Star Trek episodes, the author then attempts to reverse engineer the central operating systems of a mind such as Data's or the EMH's – which, as it turns out, might not be any more complex than Mac OSX.

Once the OS is in place, it's necessary to find ways to store and represent knowledge within the artificial mind. Ever wonder why Data and the EMH act so darn logical? It's because their brains are most likely based on the same systems of formal logic used in computer science today, from simple propositional logic to more advanced systems such as “branching temporal logic,” which is capable of accounting for multiple possible futures. (And if you've watched much Star Trek, you know that multiple pasts and futures are well within the realm of possibility!)

After learning to represent knowledge, our machine must next be able to manipulate that knowledge – that is, to think and reason. In this area, Byl covers a variety of simple reasoning schemes, including deductive and inductive reasoning, and some more complex schemes that can handle uncertainty, such as fuzzy logic and probability-based “Bayesian Inferencing.”

And of course, an artificial mind must be able to evolve beyond its original programming – something we see Data and the EMH do all the time. The author posits that this could be achieved with evolutionary computing, and presents a fascinating discussion of genetic programming and genetic algorithms, both of which translate concepts from evolutionary biology into the world of computer science.

Soul: Laughter, Tears, and Inspiration

Once we have an artificial life form that that can walk, talk, reason, and learn, we can begin to face some of AI's less quantifiable challenges. As Data himself often discovers, there's more to being human than meets the eye, and it's for this reason that the author rounds out her discussion with a look at computer creativity, logic-driven humor, and artificially engineered emotion.

Feeling and imagination may not be entirely mechanistic processes, yet AI programmers must find ways to logically represent even the most ethereal of human traits. Creativity, for instance, can be simulated using a technique called bisociation – the mental conjunction of unrelated and sometimes opposing ideas – while emotions, which are at the heart of Data's struggle to understand the human equation, can be represented via five discreet components: emotional behavior, fast primary (or reactive) emotions, cognitively generated (or responsive) emotions, emotional experience, and body-mind interactions.

Even humor can be translated into logical processes… sort of. It's possible to teach artificial beings to understand wordplay, handle humorous ambiguity, and create jokes of a specific structure, e.g. the knock-knock joke. However, it's also clear from observing the trials and tribulations of our Star Trek characters that humor is fairly subjective, and it turns out that present-day AI have as much trouble generating a good joke as does our android friend Data.

Lastly, the author addresses what is perhaps the critical measure of success in creating an artificial life – how it relates to other people. Interacting successfully with their crewmates is what allows Data and the EMH to integrate with their communities, and this basic test of reliable interactivity – known in AI as the Turing Test – will ultimately determine the success or failure of real-world artificial beings.

Holodecks, Exocomps, and Data's Evil Twin

It's well worth noting the degree to which actual Star Trek episodes are used to explore and illustrate the many topics presented in this book. The book is chock full of entertaining anecdotes from individual episodes – some quite lengthy, and many quite humorous – and Byl even goes so far as to name every one of the book's sub-sections after an episode from one of the five Star Trek shows.

Also, even though Data and the EMH are the stars of the book, other artificial life forms do make noteworthy appearances. Among them are the exocomps that manifest species-preserving behavior in “The Quality of Life”; a number of key Holodeck characters, such as the infamous Professor Moriarty; the original androids from the 1960s episode “I, Mudd;” and various members of Data's “extended family,” including his evil twin Lore. The references are many, and help to round out the wider discussion on AI.

Overall, this is a great book for people with a casual interest in the field of artificial intelligence. (For a deep scientific understanding of AI, try one of the many academic works on the topic, including those by the author herself.) This book provides a light-hearted exploration of artificial life within the context of the beloved world of Star Trek, and in that regard the author has successfully gone… where no one has gone before.


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About the Author(s)

Brad Kane


Brad Kane is a freelance writer focusing on the film and videogame industries. He has worked on several of the top-grossing animated movies of all time, and on a number of upcoming film and interactive projects. He can be reached at [email protected].

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